An elite U.S. military force killed one of the world’s most wanted terrorists, the leader of the Islamic State group, during an overnight raid in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province, President Joe Biden said Thursday.
The raid targeted Amir Muhammad Sa’id Abdal-Rahman al-Mawla, who took over as head of the militant group on Oct. 31, 2019, just days after leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi died during a U.S. raid in the same area. The target was also known as Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi.
The operation came as IS has been trying for a resurgence, with a series of attacks in the region, including a 10-day assault late last month to seize a prison.
U.S. special operations forces landed in helicopters and assaulted a house in a rebel-held corner of Syria, clashing for two hours with gunmen, witnesses said. Residents described continuous gunfire and explosions that jolted the town of Atmeh near the Turkish border, an area dotted with camps for internally displaced people from Syria’s civil war.
First responders reported that 13 people had been killed, including six children and four women.
“Last night at my direction, U.S. military forces in northwest Syria successfully undertook a counterterrorism operation to protect the American people and our Allies, and make the world a safer place,” Biden said in the statement. “Thanks to the skill and bravery of our Armed Forces, we have taken off the battlefield Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi—the leader of ISIS. All Americans have returned safely from the operation. I will deliver remarks to the American people later this morning. May God protect our troops.”
A U.S. helicopter on the raid experienced “a significant maintenance issue,” a U.S. official told Military Times. “After safely setting down, the aircraft was evacuated and blown in place,” the official said.
A journalist on assignment for The Associated Press and several residents said they saw body parts scattered near the site of the raid, a house in Syria’s rebel-held Idlib province. Most residents spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, and said the raid involved helicopters, explosions and machine-gun fire.
An Iraqi intelligence official in contact with the U.S.-led coalition said Thursday’s target was a high-ranking militant leader whose identity will be released by the White House later in the day. Al-Baghdadi’s successor, the current IS leader known as Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, was killed, Biden said in his statement.
Idlib is broadly controlled by Turkey-backed fighters, but is also an al-Qaida stronghold and home to several of its top operatives. Other militants, including extremists from the rival IS group, have also found refuge in the region.
“The first moments were terrifying, no one knew what was happening,” said Jamil el-Deddo, a resident of a nearby refugee camp. “We were worried it could be Syrian aircraft, which brought back memories of barrel bombs that used to be dropped on us,” he added, referring to crude explosives-filled containers used by President Bashar Assad’s forces against opponents during the Syrian conflict.
The top floor of the two-story house, surrounded by olive trees, was almost totally destroyed in Thursday’s raid, with the ceiling and walls knocked out.
Blood could be seen on the walls and floor of the remaining structure, which contained a wrecked bedroom with a child’s wooden crib on the floor. On one damaged wall, a blue plastic swing for children was still hanging. The kitchen was blackened with fire damage.
The opposition-run Syrian Civil Defense, first responders also known as the White Helmets, said 13 people were killed in shelling and clashes that ensued after U.S. the commando raid. They included six children and four women, it said.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition war monitor, also said the strike killed 13 people, including four children and two women. Ahmad Rahhal, a citizen journalist who visited the site, reported seeing 12 bodies.
The Pentagon provided no details on who was the target of the raid, or if any combatants or civilians on the ground were killed or injured.
Residents and activists described witnessing a large ground assault, with U.S. forces using megaphones urging women and children to leave the area.
Omar Saleh, a nearby resident, said the doors and windows of his house started to rattle to the sound of low-flying aircraft at 1:10 a.m. local time. He then heard a man, speaking Arabic with an Iraqi or Saudi accent through a loudspeaker, urging women to surrender or leave the area.
“This went on for 45 minutes. There was no response. Then the machine gun fire erupted,” Saleh said. He said the firing continued for two hours, as aircraft circled low over the area.
Others reported hearing at least one major explosion during the operation. A U.S. official said that one of the helicopters in the raid suffered a mechanical problem and had to be blown up on the ground. The U.S. official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss details of the military operation.
The Observatory said troops for the U.S.-led coalition using helicopters landed in the area and attacked a house. It said the force clashed with fighters on the ground. Taher al-Omar, an Idlib-based activist, also said he witnessed clashes between fighters and the U.S. force.
The military operation got attention on social media, with tweets from the region describing helicopters firing around the building near Atmeh. Flight-tracking data also suggested that multiple drones were circling the city of Sarmada and the village of Salwah, just north of the raid’s location.
The U.S. has in the past used drones to kill top al-Qaida operatives in Idlib, which at one point was home to the group’s biggest concentration of leaders since the days of Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. The fact that special forces landed on the ground suggest the target was believed to be of high value.
A similar attack in Pakistan, in 2011, killed bin Laden.
Thursday’s clandestine operation came as the Islamic State group was reasserting itself in Syria and Iraq, carrying out some of its biggest attacks since it was defeated in 2019. In recent weeks and months, the group has launched a series of operations in the region, including a 10-day assault late last month to seize a prison in northeastern Syria.
A U.S.-backed Kurdish-led force said more than 120 of their fighters and prison workers died in the effort to thwart the IS plot, whose goal appeared to free senior IS operatives from the prison. The prison houses at least 3,000 Islamic State group detainees.
The attempted prison break was the biggest military operation by the extremist group since IS was defeated and members scattered to havens in 2019. The U.S.-led coalition carried out airstrikes and deployed American personnel in Bradley Fighting Vehicles to the prison area to help the Kurdish forces.
At a news conference Monday, an SDF senior official Nowruz Ahmad said the prison assault was part of a broader plot that IS had been preparing for a long time, including attacks on other neighborhoods in northeastern Syria and on the al-Hol camp in the south, which houses thousands of families of IS members.
The U.S.-led coalition has targeted high-profile militants on several occasions in recent years, aiming to disrupt what U.S. officials say is a secretive cell known as the Khorasan group that is planning external attacks. A U.S. airstrike killed al-Qaida’s second in command, former bin Laden aide Abu al-Kheir al-Masri, in Syria in 2017.
Baldor reported from Washington, D.C. and Mroue from Beirut. Associated Press writers Zeina Karam in Beirut and Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Baghdad and Military Times Senior Managing Editor Howard Altman contributed reporting.